Can you answer me a simple question – why should anyone bother with the church anymore? There's only so much we can take. I haven’t given up but I'm considering it. A fair number of my friends don’t go to Mass anymore. Why bore ourselves to death – is there some benefit in boredom? People can do a lot of good without ever going to Mass, and some people who do go have done a lot of harm. In fairness I know there are lots of good people too in the church, but they would be good wherever they were. Will the churches be empty in a few years?
Thanks for your honest letter, and I'm sure you are expressing feelings that a great many Irish people have at the present time.
Why bother with the Church anymore? Let me tell you an experience I had a few months ago. College chaplains in Ireland invited me to take part in their annual conference, even though I'm not a college chaplain. Instead of inviting someone to give them lectures they decided they would go as a group to various places in Dublin where people were actually living the Gospel rather than just talking about it.
First on the list was Fr Peter McVerry SJ who has been taking care of homeless people in Dublin for more than 30 years, advocating tirelessly for them and organising help. He never raises the question of religion with them. He has to embody faith hope and love, he said, rather than talk about them. One young man, a recovering drug addict, pointed to Peter and said, “If it wasn’t for him I would certainly be dead.” We went from there to ‘Kevin’s Kitchen’: Kevin is a Capuchin brother who has been running a day care centre since 1969, where he manages to give a full Irish breakfast to around 250 disadvantaged people every morning, and between 400 and 500 full dinners every day. Every week his centre hands out about 1000 bags of groceries to the poor. He is helped by an army of volunteers, and countless people who give financial support. I saw teenagers washing enormous piles of plates, who might find it hard to wash a mug at home. When something genuine is being done, people join in very willingly. Brother Kevin says he always gives his clients the very best he can get. For their whole lives these people had been feeling that they were second-best. Giving them something second-best would just confirm that feeling. Next day we went to Sr Stanislaus Kennedy’s centre. Like Peter McVerry, she has been organising and working for decades to combat the effects of poverty and homelessness. From there we went to ‘Sophia housing’. Many years ago the Sisters of Mercy donated a convent to a group who developed it into housing for homeless women. What strikes you instantly is the beauty of the place. This, the Sister said, is a way of telling those women that they are not second-best. By the way, all these places I have mentioned have websites where you can get information on what they do.
I found the three days deeply moving, and I came home convinced that you have to look in the right places to find the Church. You find it where the Gospel is being lived. All that work of service to the disadvantaged is done below the radar, so to speak: right on the ground, on the street. Above the radar what do you get? The big hats and the big egos. It’s a big mistake to identify the Church with the hierarchy. The Church is Christ together with all the members of his body – all of us. That's why it is worth staying with it. Don’t let anyone’s behaviour deprive you of your identity. That would be to give them absolute power over you. The Church is going through a trial by fire at the present time. That fire will burn away everything that is not genuine – clericalism and pomp and wealth and control – but the genuine things will last. It has taken a crisis of these dimensions to bring us back to a real sense of who the Church is, and what can withstand scrutiny and what cannot. Even in the worst situations something good is coming into focus. That would be in keeping with the logic of the faith: from death comes resurrection and new life.